Saturday, November 6, 2010

Big Jones, Chicago IL

For breakfast on the third day of our trip to Chicago I planned in advance – while I’m willing to wait in long lines for great food I’d much rather make a reservation and avoid it. With most Chicago brunch hot-spots opening around 9:00am I woke up early as ever a hit the gym before waking the crew and hitting the road – our first stop would be Floriole bakery at 8:00am – unfortunately they’d had some issues with staff arriving late and very few items were ready – unabashed we walked next door to Sweet Mandy B’s where we picked up some cupcakes for later.

Loaded back into the car by 8:30 we proceeded through the cold streets and arrived in Andersonville by 8:45 – familiar with the area from our visit to Great Lake the night before we actually parked in the same exact spot and made our way to Big Jones by 8:55. Just slightly north of freezing we stood waiting for the doors to open while we watched three fellows (one with his pants essentially halfway down his posterior) attempt to hang a large curtain near the hostess stand…when 9:00 rolled around the doors did not open…nor did they open at 9:05, 9:10, or 9:15 as the team fussed with the curtain and moving plates around on tables…I know they saw us – they saw our group and another two couples standing in the cold yet the “closed” sign remained in place. At 9:20 they finally opened the door without any explanation for the delay – even when I strode up the host stand and made a point stating “We had reservations for three at 9am” – and without a hello or a smile we were led to a seat near the front of the restaurant where their newly hung curtain would fail to prevent an extremely cold draft every time someone opened the door.


Without going on at length about the abysmal service at Big Jones and thus rendering this review negative throughout I will note here that aside from the seating gaffs there was also the issue of empty coffee and hot water for tea, orders presented to the wrong persons, significant delays and lack of personality despite the restaurant being half empty, and a dessert order that required advanced notice was forgotten thus prolonging our frequently frigid stay by 30 minutes. Those issues out of the way, I will now note that the setting was charming, the seating comfortable, and the concept/cooking quite appealing. As described by chef/owner Paul Fehribach "I do what I do because I want to see nutrition, sustainability, and humane treatment of farm animals become the standard by which we judge food - not cheap price, industrial consistency, or marketing dollars spent. We can all eat better by treating the land and our animal friends better."

Warming up with the first of three cups of Intelligentsia orders were placed and the first item to arrive was the restaurant’s signature complimentary beignets. Served in a group of four and topped liberally (or sparsely if your point of comparison is Café du Monde) with powdered sugar the puffs of dough were toothsome on the exterior with a supple interior that melted in the mouth – as quickly as they arrived they were gone.

For our appetizer selections we decided to share two of the myriad Low Country options – the first being Cracked Pepper and Goat Cheese Biscuits with Honey butter and house blueberry preserves. Textural and buttery the biscuits were excellent with a distinct tanginess lent by the cheese. Visually obvious I personally did not feel the pepper added much flavor to the dish but with that said the saccharine sweet honey butter and smooth preserves were excellent additions and served to highlight the cheese’s nuances.

The second appetizer, Cajun Pancakes with blueberry preserves and honey butter fared just as well as the biscuits and perhaps better. Thin crepes with the butter folded inside the crispy yet light cakes were paired with powdered sugar and the same delectable preserves presented with the biscuits. Thinking aloud I mentioned to my sister that any dish raising memories of my Maternal Grandmother’s Hungarian palachinka is never a bad thing – interestingly another dish later in the day would raise memory of my Maternal Grandfather, as well.

After a lengthy delay of around twenty-five minutes the restaurant had filled to approximately 1/2 capacity and our main courses began to arrive. With Nate again not preferring sugary breakfasts he opted for a beautiful looking rendition of classic Eggs Benedict with Neiman Ranch applewood pit ham, and poached eggs served over popovers and topped with hollandaise alongside classic potatoes O'Brien. Judging by his lack of chatter during the meal and subsequent empty plate I will assume he enjoyed them.

Eschewing her love of sweet breakfasts for her love of both cornbread and pancakes Erika’s selection would prove to be the best of the group – Low country style corn cakes with cheddar cheese, vegetarian red beans, poached eggs, and green tomato chili sauce. Far less spicy than I’d have imagined (a good thing for me but likely not for those who fancy “low country” heat) the cakes themselves proved to be toothsome without being grainy and sweet without being sugary. Topped with perfectly poached eggs whose yolks helped to balance the acidity of the tomatoes and rimmed by red beans the dish was certainly heavy but not so much that it was overwhelming.

For my option, featuring house made Sally Lunn Bread, I selected the Sally Lunn French Toast with Brandied Harrow's Delight pears, Neiman Ranch applewood ham, and Michigan Maple syrup. Sweet, Savory, and slightly boozy all at once this dish could have been a standout save for one thing – as well caramelized and eggy as the bread was, it was largely uncooked on the interior and more a grilled ham sandwich than French Toast. Tasty for sure and featuring some of the best breakfast ham I’ve had in some time I simply prefer my French Toast with a more custard center.

At this point our server returned to ask “will there be anything else” and when I mentioned the dessert order he admitted he had forgotten and apologized. Asking if we would still be interested I assented and after another 30 minutes of chatting and drinking coffee the desserts would arrive – the first a house made Bourbon Bread Pudding with Autumn Apples, Salted caramel, and vanilla bean ice cream. Considering myself something of a Bread Pudding Aficionado I have to say the flavor of the dish was quite good but the texture of the pudding was a tad stiff and the apples were underwhelming both it taste and texture. With the vanilla bean ice-cream and the crumbled salted caramel propping up the dish I will simply say I was underwhelmed that this came from a restaurant proclaiming itself to represent Southern Costal Cuisine.

Our final selection, and the reason for the delay, was the fresh baked Red Velvet Cake with cocoa, beet, and citrus plus cream cheese semifreddo. What the dish lacked in presentation – essentially a puck of red velvet tilted up by the semifreddo and crumbles of salted caramel along side – it more than made up for in taste, texture, and temperature. With the still steaming cake slowly melting the impossibly creamy and smooth semifreddo and caramel adding texture each bite was a different experience – cocoa, citrus, earthy, and entirely worth the wait – a dish that alone justifies a visit to Big Jones, even if just for dessert (perhaps after a Pizza at Great Lake?)

Settling the bill and making our way to the car the day remained cold while my feelings about Big Jones could be summed up as tepid. With ethics and a business model so strong I felt rather disappointed that customer service was so poor and while some items were truly exemplary others were rather ho-hum and poorly executed. Having now had a number of great breakfasts and brunches in Chicago – in my humble opinion the best brunch city in the US – I can’t say I’d rush back to Big Jones for anything aside from that Red Velvet cake…provided I did not have to stand and then sit in the cold for 2 hours to get it.

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